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Duo quit opposition group in Highland Council

By Hugh Ross

There has been another change in the dynamics of the council chamber
There has been another change in the dynamics of the council chamber

The political opposition to the coalition running Highland Council has been dealt a blow after two disgruntled members quit.

Lochaber duo Thomas MacLennan and Andrew Baxter have both left the Independent group of councillors.

The pair became disillusioned and a local row over the leader’s post in the newly-formed Lochaber area committee, which saw Councillor MacLennan appointed, also played a part in their resignations.

Both councillors will now become non-aligned and said they would not join any other political groups, but will lose their membership and voting rights on several major committees including roads, housing and education as Independents.

The opposition group has been weakened to 33 members but it does not affect the majority enjoyed by the SNP/Liberal Democrat and Labour administration, which gives it the power to push through its policies.

Independent group leader Carolyn Wilson was disappointed to lose the pair but said it was their personal decisions.

Drew Hendry, the council leader and SNP group leader, claimed they had quit a group lacking direction.

Councillors MacLennan and Baxter can still attend meetings as non-members and be allowed to speak out on issues, but at the committee chairpersons’ behest.

Councillor MacLennan insisted his resignation via e-mail had nothing to do with voting against the group last week, as it unsuccessfully challenged the controversial axing of the Local Member Vote.

Despite the loss of voting rights, he said that he can still represent his constituents.

"I have been mulling over my decision for some time," he said. "I have got a lot of friends in the Independent group. The administration are well-marshalled and there are not many opportunities to overturn [decisions]. If I put my hand up I think most committee chairs will listen to my point of view."

He said the Lochaber leader row, which saw him clash with local Independent colleagues after the area’s provostship was axed, had been a factor.

Councillor Baxter said he had always been reluctant to become a member of the Independent group following the May 2012 elections.

"I had never intended to join and I think in over the year I have been on the council, I am just as capable of getting of putting my point across and representing my constituents," he said. "I was selected as an independent councillor and I am still an independent councillor. It is business as usual."

The former election agent for the Conservative party refused to say whether any parties had invited him to join their groups.

Councillor Wilson said neither of them had ever been whipped, unlike their political rivals.

"We are not a political party, it is up to members how they vote," she said. "It is sad that they have decided to leave the group, they both made a valued contribution over the piece, Thomas particularly on finance and pensions and Andrew took an interest in TECS. Most of this is down to the problems in Lochaber which were not resolved." Councillor Hendry described the former Independents as being amongst the "most productive and forward-thinking" of any councillors.

"Being in a group without any purpose or sense of direction must have been very hard to deal with," he said.

"It does not surprise me that they have become weary of being ignored and their votes taken for granted. We look forward to working with them more directly, now that they have more freedom to do so, on local and Highland-wide issues to benefit our people."

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